Epictetus vs the Epicureans and the Academics

Epictetus
Epictetus, pensive

This must be Epictetus’ week. Well, for me it’s actually Epictetus’ year, since I decided that the book I’m writing, How To Be a Stoic (to be published by Basic Books in spring ’17) will be organized as an indirect conversation between myself and the slave-turned-teacher, who will guide me and my readers in a breezy exploration of Stoicism. (My original idea was to use Seneca, but I changed my mind.)

Anyway, the other day I was re-reading Discourses II.20, entitled “Against followers of Epicurus and of the Academy,” and I was reminded once again of how forceful Epictetus’ prose can be, and of how intense the intellectual debate among Hellenistic schools really was.

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Epictetus and the Master Argument

Phidias: Athena Parthenon, ~450BCE
Phidias: Athena Parthenon, ~450BCE

Epictetus, even more so than most Stoics, thought that philosophy has to be useful, or it becomes the kind of sterile intellectual exercise (some would dare say mental masturbation) that it is notorious for in certain quarters of the modern academy.

His attitude is perhaps most explicitly and fascinatingly on display in Discourses II.19, where he tackles the famous “Master Argument,” originally proposed by Diodorus Cronus in the III century BCE (i.e., about four centuries before Epictetus).

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Stoic spiritual exercises: II, from the Meditations

from Action Philosophers, at actionphilosophers.com
from Action Philosophers, at actionphilosophers.com

We have recently looked at a number of Stoic exercises straight from the mouth of one of the great ones: Epictetus. He was, of course, a teacher, and his Enchiridion, on which I focused, was explicitly put together (by his student Arrian) as a quick guide to Stoic practice.

Here I present a second set of “spiritual” exercises, this time culled (with the help of my friend Greg Lopez, co-host of last year’s Stoic Camp) from Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations. There will inevitably be some overlap between the two sets, of course, but the contrast between Epictetus and Marcus will be instructive, as the latter was influenced by the former, and yet wrote the Meditations as a personal diary, not for publication. We are, therefore, glimpsing at what the emperor told himself he should and should not do, as a good Stoic.

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Stoic spiritual exercises: I, from the Enchiridion

Action Philosophers-impressions
from Action Philosophers, at actionphilosophers.com

Stoicism is a practical philosophy of life, and while I enjoy writing about its history and theory, it is the practice that has so far had a significant impact in my life. I assume it is the same for most of my readers too. (Indeed, it’s more than just an assumption: consistently, the posts that get the highest number of hits here are those that have to do with practical aspects of Stoicism.)

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2016: Annus Studiorum Stoicorum

Stoicism invented hereAs readers of this blog might know, I began practicing Stoicism, as an experiment in personal philosophy on 4 October 2014. I reported on the ongoing changes to my life about a year later, concluding that it was definitely worth a second year of commitment.

However, when I began I was certainly not expecting 2016 to shape the way it looks like it is shaping now. It truly is going to be an annus studiorum Stoicorum (a year of Stoic studies) for me. I will, of course, report on my progress from time to time on this blog, which is essentially conceived as my public diary of philosophical discovery, but let me give you the outline of what is about to happen. Comments and suggestions are certainly welcome.

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Stoic Camp New York, 2015

Stoic Camp-sunriseStoic Camp New York 2015, the first and hopefully not the last of its kind (fate permitting) was a resounding success. My friend Greg Lopez, who runs the New York City Stoics meetup, and I guided twelve people interested in learning Stoicism for three full days in the beautiful setting of Stony Point, NY, on the Hudson River.

We had a full schedule, beginning on the first evening with a discussion of why one might want to adopt, or develop, a philosophy of life (not necessarily Stoicism), followed by an overview of Stoic philosophy. From the beginning, we encouraged our students to keep notes, and in particular to build their own “handbook” (inspired by Epictetus’ Enchiridion, of course), where they would write down Stoic quotes they found particularly inspiring. We also advised them to keep a daily journal (modeled after Marcus’ Meditations), writing down their thoughts about the challenges of the day and how they handled them.

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Epictetus’ Handbook

Epictetus-5I finally finished my project of re-reading all of Epictetus: the Discourses, the Fragments, and now the Enchiridion, or Handbook.

The latter, of course, is a famous collection of what Epictetus allegedly said (according to his student, Arrian), meant for a more general audience, i.e., people who are just beginning to approach Stoicism. As such, it is indeed a pretty good, breezy overview of Stoic ethical principles (as is well known, Epictetus wasn’t really interested in Stoicism’s other two pillars, Physics and Logic).

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